A Breed Like No Other
I suppose I was as startled as any of you to hear those brief excerpts of recordings that historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. made of his conversations with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. To hear her call Martin Luther King, Jr. a phony was startling enough, but for me as a biographer it was her voice that made the most impact. To be able to hear Jackie talking in this relaxed, candid manner, was a revelation. Of course, I knew there must be a private Jackie, a forthright Jackie, a Jackie other than the bouffant confection associated with the Camelot years of the Kennedy administration. In fact, from reading one of the recent books on Jackie as a book editor, I already had some sense of how this woman looked and behaved when she was not on the public stage. Still, the frankness of her remarks reminded me of how badly we need biography as a revelation of the whole person.
That Jackie let her hair down for Schlesinger is revealing to a biographer like me, and yet none of the news reports I read gave him any credit other than mentioning his name. I never met Jackie, although we once were within two degrees of separation when my agent told me that Jackie had told my editor that Doubleday should buy my Martha Gellhorn biography (which it did). But Arthur Schlesinger, I knew from interviewing him for my Rebecca West biography. Arthur had incurred Rebecca’s wrath in the course of his correspondence with her because she thought he was soft on communism. He was not. But since he did not indulge in the fervent anti-communist rhetoric that West favored, she suspected a weakness in his position. Not for a moment, however, did Arthur seem miffed by her rude dismissal of his arguments. He rather enjoyed her chafing him, I thought. Later they became friends, and she grew quite fond of him—which brings me back to Arthur and Jackie.
I don’t believe Jackie would have been quite so outspoken with any other biographer/historian. If you read Schlesinger’s journals, you can see that he was a very sociable man and had friendships across the political spectrum. He just enjoyed people, period. And he loved parties and various kinds of get-togethers. He relished putting together a panel of biographers that included Antonia Fraser, Michael Holroyd, David Levering Lewis, and me in a sort of transatlantic dialogue about biography sponsored by the English Speaking Union. I was pleased, needless to say, that Arthur felt I belonged in this company, and before and after the event he could not have been nicer in the way he got us together and jollied us on and off the stage. This was no act; this was the man. For years afterwards, he extended various kindnesses to me. We were hardly close friends, but I felt he took an interest in me—indeed, that he championed me. This is a small matter in my biography, but I mention it to explain that a man with this much heart was bound to get Jackie to open up.
And that is what biography is about: opening up. No matter how much you think you know about a public figure—even one about whom much has been written and broadcast—there is nothing like a biography to get at aspects of the subject that historians, politicos, literary critics, and other specialists ignore or slight.
So cheers to biographers, a breed of writers like no other.
Books mentioned in this column:
Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.